February 24, 2018

Concrete material more memorable

Readers see ‘white horse,’ not ‘absolute truth’

Write “juicy hot dog,” and your readers may see a frankfurter nestled in a bun, slathered with mustard and onions. They may even taste it.

Make messages memorable with concrete copy

Hold that thought Concrete phrases like ‘white horse’ are more memorable than abstract ones like ‘basic theory.’ Image by Trevor Paterson

This “dual coding” — where your brain processes not only the words, but the sensory experience of the object the words describe — is one reason concrete copy is so powerful.

But does concrete copy — copy that shows instead of tells, that describes objects instead of ideas — help people remember messages better than abstract ones?

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario aimed to find out. So they read study participants a series of concrete and abstract adjectives and nouns, then combined them into concrete and abstract phrases:

Concrete phrases

Abstract phrases

  • Square door
  • Rusty engine
  • Flaming forest
  • Muscular gentleman
  • White horse
  • Crippled judge
  • Young mother
  • Hungry prisoner
  • Round temple
  • Muddy village
  • Impossible amount
  • Better excuse
  • Apparent fact
  • Common fate
  • Subtle fault
  • Available knowledge
  • Rational method
  • Particular soul
  • Basic theory
  • Absolute truth

Subjects remembered

  • Almost twice as many concrete words than abstract words.
  • Nearly four times as many concrete phrases than abstract phrases.

People remember concrete words, phrases better


Double up: Concrete phrases become single images, making them easier to recall. But abstract phrases remain words, making them harder to remember

The reason: Two concrete words become one image. It’s not any harder to see a square door than a door, for instance, so the phrases don’t take any extra effort to remember.

But abstract words like “impossible” and “amount” don’t paint pictures in your audience members’ minds. So instead of becoming images, they remain words. That makes it harder to remember abstract words — and harder still to remember abstract phrases.

Concrete copy sticks.

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that concrete copy sticks in readers’ heads:

  • Community college students read stories and immediately reported the concrete images and verbal information they remembered. Later, they were asked to recall what they’d reported. The verbal information faded over time; the concrete images stuck. (Sadoski, et al., 1990).
  • Undergraduates read features stories from Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic and rated each paragraph for concrete imagery and importance. Later, the undergraduates remembered the paragraphs that were concrete more than the ones that were important. (Sadoski and Quast, 1990).
  • Undergraduates in a different study rated sentences from an encyclopedia story about Horatio Nelson. They remembered the concrete, interesting information better after time had passed than the information they’d rated as important. (Wade and Adams).
  • Fourth- and sixth-grade students remembered concrete, active, personally engaging copy better than abstract copy — even though they themselves had rated the abstract material more important because it expressed the main ideas. However, when researchers added concrete elements to those abstract ideas, the students remembered some of the important information better, too. (Hidi and Baird).
  • In another study, readers rated concrete historical narratives more interesting and understandable that abstract historical narratives. They remembered the concrete copy better than the abstract copy by a ratio of almost 2 to 1, both immediately and after time had passed. (Sadoski et al., 1993).
  • In an extended review of the 1993 study using historical narratives, researchers found that concrete copy was more interesting and easier to understand and remember. (Sadoski et al., 1993).

Want to make your copy more interesting, understandable and memorable? Illustrate your ideas with concrete details.

As James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, counsels:

“Make the important interesting.”

  • Color Them Fascinated

    Fun facts and juicy details might seem like the Cheez Doodles and Cronuts of communication: tempting, for sure, but a little childish and not particularly good for you.

    Not so. Concrete details are more like salad dressing and aioli — the secret sauces it takes to get the nutritious stuff down. Call it “The Vividness Effect.” It’s been proven in the lab again and again: Colorful details communicate better than dry, abstract information.

    Indeed, readers are more likely to understand and remember vivid details than dry abstractions. One study even showed that colorful details like Darth Vader toothbrushes can change people’s minds.

    At Portland creative writing workshopMaster the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing master class on July 25-26, 2018 in Portland — you’ll learn how to rivet readers with juicy details. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Show and tell: Help readers understand your big ideas by way of your specific details.
    • Play it SAFE: Six ways to add color to your message.
    • Write like a roller coaster: Are you losing them in the middle? Test your message so you can spot and fix the boring parts.
    • Write to be read: Where to sprinkle “gold coins” throughout your message to keep readers engaged.
    • Go from blah to brilliant in 15 minutes or less: Quick ways to add concrete detail to even the most tedious topics.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in Portland.

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.


Sources: Ian Begg, “Recall of Meaningful Phrases,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, vol. 11 (1972), pp. 431-439

S. Hidi and W.H. Baird, “Strategies for increasing text-based interest and students’ recall of expository texts,” Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 1988, pp. 465-483

Mark Sadoski, Ernest T. Goetz and Maximo Rodriguez, “Engaging Texts: Effects of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Recall in Four Text Types,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, 2000, pp. 85-95

Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “A causal model of sentence recall: Effects of familiarity, concreteness, comprehensibility and interestingnesss,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 1993, pp. 5-16

Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 1993, pp. 291-304

Mark Sadoski; E.T. Goetz; A. Olivarez, Jr.; S. Lee; and N.M. Roberts. “Imagination in story reading: The role of imagery, verbal recall, story analysis and processing levels,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 55-70

Mark Sadoski and Z. Quast, “Reader response and long term recall for journalistic text: The roles of imagery, affect and importance,” Reading Research Quarterly, Vol.25, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 256-272

S.E. Wade and R.B. Adams, “Effects of importance and interest on recall of biographical text,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 331-353

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